Muzzled Merkel Opponent Put on Short Leash

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate running against Chancellor Angela Merkel in a September general election, is still seen as a risk to the party's prospects despite a recent boost from Lower Saxony. Damaged by a string of gaffes, he will be kept on a tighter rein and only have a limited say in campaign strategy.


By , , , and Merlind Theile

The highlight of the tour is a 1.5-ton bull called Hoeness. Peer Steinbrück, doing the rounds at the International Green Week farming trade fair in Berlin last Friday, stood at the gate and admired the Bavarian beast, renowned for his prodigious breeding capabilities.

Hoeness' most remarkable feature is his lack of horns, said a farm worker, adding that his offspring even inherited that. "Ah, I've only just noticed that," said Steinbrück. Then he quipped, "you couldn't do that with me!"

Steinbrück, picked by the opposition center-left Social Democrats to challenge Chancela Angela Merkel in the general election in September, strolled from stand to stand and constantly had to sample foods such as venison salami, marinated herring, strawberry ice cream and meat in aspic, in between shaking hands and posing for photos with prospective voters.

This was an exercise in getting close to the public -- something Steinbrück doesn't always get right. After an hour, his entourage passed a group of schoolchildren, who laughed and waved. It would have been a nice picture, the candidate and the children, but instead of walking over to the group of youngsters, he hesitated.

"You don't even know who we are," the candidate growled. He gave a thin smile, passed up the photo op and walked on. Later, when Steinbrück went on stage to make a statement in the exhibition hall of the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the crowd booed.

It was his first public appearance since the state election in Lower Saxony on Feb. 20.

The election went well for the SPD -- together with the Greens, it won enough votes to oust Merkel's conservatives from the state government, giving the center-left a much-needed boost ahead of the general election. But Steinbrück, supposedly the face of the party in this election year, was kept in the background all last week while the party's other leaders took center stage to wax lyrical about the outcome.

A series of verbal gaffes in recent months -- saying German chancellors were underpaid, for example -- has undermined his position. Usually, the candidate for chancellor is a party's most important figure in an election year, embodying the hopes and expectations of its members. Ideally this individual should stand for what distinguishes the party from its rivals.

No other representative in the political system is so closely scrutinized by the electorate. Do voters really want to entrust this man or woman with their country's future -- and their children's future?

Steinbrück would like to assume this role -- but he can't, at least not now. In this important week for the SPD, he got to inspect Hoeness the bull and grin at the cameras. That's not much for a chancellor candidate and it shows how precarious his political position remains. Indeed, the SPD's narrow state election victory has only brought one certainty: Speculation that Steinbrück might throw in the towel has been disproved.

No one feared such a scenario more than SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel. Until recently, he was unsure whether Steinbrück would keep his nerve in the face of fierce criticism over his botched start as candidate. Aides say that Gabriel was bordering on panic in the days running up to the election in Lower Saxony.

Steinbrück Seen as Risk Factor

Now, he has one less thing to worry about, but there still remain a host of other concerns surrounding this candidate. On election night, Steinbrück apologized for the lack of "tailwind" from Berlin during the election, and said that he was also aware that he was "partly responsible for that." It was the euphemism of the month.

The sad reality, though, is that it wasn't thanks to, but rather despite Steinbrück that the SPD won in Lower Saxony. This man is currently not an asset to his party. That, at least, is the message that leading members of the SPD are conveying. "He hasn't caused as much damage as we feared," says an influential party functionary.

Consequently, the SPD is entering the active phase of the election campaign with two top men. Party chairman Gabriel chooses the issues, steers party meetings and shapes strategy. By contrast, the man aspiring to Germany's highest political office is seen as a risk factor who carries barely any political weight.

The election victory in Lower Saxony has placed the SPD in an odd situation. This last-minute success gave the party an unexpected sense of triumph. SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles called it a "priceless boost in motivation."

But the SPD is lumbered with a candidate who has a tendency to wreck public appearances with ill-judged remarks. "Steinbrück will have to watch more closely what he says," says a leading member of the party, adding that "there is no alternative -- now he has to maintain discipline." Top members of the party talk about the front man as if he were a patient who, they hope, will take the right medicine so he can finally regain his strength.

He'll have to swallow some bitter pills. From now on, he will be closely monitored. His contacts with the press have been significantly reduced in recent weeks. He has given only a few interviews so far this year, given none of the usual background briefings to journalists and has been conspicuously avoiding microphones.

From now on, all Steinbrück interviews will be proofread a number of times at party headquarters in Berlin -- including by Nahles, the general secretary. Steinbrück personally requested this. He has been instructed to avoid making any comments on alcoholic beverages, salaries or even money in general -- to avoid further controversy. He recently said he wouldn't buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio wine for less than €5 ($6.70) and has attracted controversy over lucrative speaking engagements in the last three years that earned him over €1 million -- not the most convincing CV for a politician who is supposed to be defending the interests of the less fortunate.

Candidate to be Kept on a Tight Leash

The candidate and his strategists have now come to the conclusion that they made a fundamental error on a key point. They believed that voters were primarily interested in Steinbrück the crisis manager -- in other words, the former finance minister who helped Chancellor Merkel to tackle the banking crisis in 2008, and who could now save the euro and finally tame financial markets.

Steinbrück and his aides realized far too late that he would first have to play another role: that as caring father of the nation who listens to the concerns of nurses and crane operators, and discusses policy with trade union officials. Not surprisingly, his campaign planners are sending their candidate into people's living rooms and multi-generation households, as well as into workshops and soup kitchens.

After his election victory in 1998, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) also appeared to lose his center-left grounding. His penchant for expensive red wines, Brioni suits and hand-rolled Cuban Cohiba cigars cost him a great deal of political capital. His supporters reacted by turning their backs on him and not bothering to vote.

But unlike Steinbrück, Schröder, who grew up without a father, was able to produce a typical working class biography -- and, unlike Steinbrück, Schröder never lost contact with the day-to-day working world in companies, nor with works councils, the powerful bodies that represent employees inside a company. What's more, again unlike Steinbrück, Schröder had already managed to get elected as chancellor.

During a campaign strategy meeting at SPD party headquarters in Berlin last Monday, planners charted out Steinbrück's course of action for the coming months. They don't intend to hide the candidate, but they have decided that he should restrict his comments to financial and economic issues, at least for the time being.

Party head Gabriel diplomatically phrased the candidate's new intended role: "Steinbrück will complement the social expertise, which the SPD already has, with his economic expertise." But the fact of the matter is that this belies a new division of power. Gabriel is the strong man, who can determine the length of the candidate's leash. Steinbrück has to toe the line.

The idea here is to narrow the gap between the candidate and the party. But, in reality, it makes the rift even larger.

SPD Veering to the Left

Steinbrück has always been a representative of the SPD's governing wing, a man of facts and figures who avoids making campaign promises he can't keep. By contrast, the recent years in opposition have enticed most SPD members to embrace party principles even though they often have little to do with reality.

It should actually be Gabriel's job to close this gap and provide the "leg room" that Steinbrück had demanded for himself right from the start. But the party leader has another agenda. He is gradually pushing the SPD to the left, and the candidate has to follow, even if the old Steinbrück is still barely recognizable.

The best example of this is the new pension reform plan. Shortly after presenting Steinbrück as the chancellor candidate, party chairman Gabriel caved in to pressure from the SPD's left wing and announced that billions of euros would be spent to combat old-age poverty. This includes reducing the legal retirement age from the current 67 years, in certain cases, and introducing costly programs to improve life for low-income earners, senior citizens in eastern Germany and recipients of disability pensions.

Before his nomination, Steinbrück would have derided such a political wish list as pie in the sky. Now, he diligently praises the plans as a "new, coherent concept."

Steinbrück's former adversaries within the SPD are delighted at the number of demands they have been able to push through: "We are satisfied," says Ralf Stegner, a senior member of the SPD's left wing, "and we intend to continue to exert influence."

The SPD is putting issues on the political agenda that are not part of Steinbrück's portfolio. In a draft paper, the party has come out in support of increasing the amount of money available for student loans.

Eight months before the general election, the party faces a dilemma. Its chances of winning the election are greater than ever, but it has a candidate who doesn't fit its program and trails the incumbent chancellor by nearly 30 percentage points in the opinion polls.

Steinbrück's brief visit to International Green Week revealed the degree to which he feels on the defensive. At the press conference that he hosted after touring the trade show, he sat next to Till Backhaus, the agriculture minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The topic was industrial animal agriculture and the correct approach to using protein crops -- not exactly the kind of issues a chancellor handles. At the end of the event, a journalist asked a question about government policy. What did Steinbrück think about Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's austerity plans?

Finances! That should be right up Steinbrück's alley. On that day, though, he had no desire to answer the question. "That is a question that should be directed to the current government and not to me," he said with a scowl. No further questions.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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